• Author:Ben Jones
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Training to become a psychotherapist: no pain, no gain

Despite the daily, drip, drip, drip of dire news on the COVID front and the seemingly inevitable impending doom of tier four restrictions reaching us here in Merseyside (perhaps as part of a full national lockdown in January), I am enjoying my Christmas/end of year break. 

Like many people – although not all as there are plenty of folk working hard at the moment to keep us safe, healthy and stocked with food and the like – I am taking a few days off from work. This process is much easier to navigate when you are working for yourself and there isn’t a holiday rota to accommodate or the annual game of musical chairs of “who is working over new year?” to face. This year is also a formal break from studying for me: a break from classes as part of my masters in counselling and psychotherapy. 

This break came at a good time: just after my first assignment (and my first essay in over twenty one years!) was due – and at the end of an intense term in which the studying hasn’t just been of books and ideas but of me. 

This self study, this deep looking at what makes me tick, is incredibly important on the journey to becoming a counsellor/therapist. I have learnt that it is perhaps the most important aspect of the learning that you would apply in practice, including how to spot whether your clients’ material (their issues, problems, stories and discussions) are pushing some buttons for you; bringing up things from your life; reminding you of people or experiences that have shaped who you are. Understanding this is so important to ensure that you are staying with your client and their frame of reference – their life – and not drifting into your own.

These acts of self reflection come naturally to me as someone who has spent and continues to spend a lot of his life thinking and reflecting on what he has done and why – helped by extensive experience of therapy from different parts of my life. I have returned now to therapy partly as a requirement of the course – you need to undertake some therapy during the first two years – but also as I have been aware of issues that have come up for me as I have been studying the books and the deeper recesses of myself over the last fourteen week or so. 

This is a good thing. It would be strange I think to be on this course and not to be thinking afresh about parts of my story; parts of my personality; parts of me and what makes me who I am. I am enjoying this aspect of my experience but it is not easy. It is painful. It has at times been sad. At times deeply, deeply sad. Too sad even for tears. 

There is very little (I would have said nothing fourteen weeks ago) of my story that I hadn’t explored and tried to understand (within therapy and outside over the last fifteen years or so) and I was confident that I had a good grasp on me and my material. The last few months have shown that only to be partially true. The big stuff was on the table and I knew a lot, but not enough. The depth that I am now going to with my own reflections, thinking and exploring are so much deeper than before and reflect the power of building up some greater knowledge of therapy and more importantly of myself. The constant gentle challenge (and support) you are presented with on a course like this to ask yourself why did you feel like that/what was going on for you in that moment/why did you react like that, allows you to dig a little deeper and understand a lot more. 

Working on my practical therapy skills each week – as I have be doing with my fellow students – wearing the hat of a therapist (albeit a trainee therapist) whilst one of your classmates talks to you about things that are going on for them and opening the door into their feelings, some of them raw, painful and upsetting, is an incredibly humbling thing. It is a huge privilege. It is a massive responsibility and it is an opportunity – one I am trying to seize – to reflect on the parts of my own story that I may have placed in the box marked ‘tackled’ but that probably deserve a further airing.

Revisiting parts of my life as I have been doing, with this new-found developing knowledge and skillset, has been illuminating. It is not all about the darker moments (the bullying, the breakdown; the boy becoming a man before his time; the brutal feelings of loss and loneliness), it is also about the partner and parent you have become and the positive ways in which you are trying to play your role in the world: the ‘tiny ripples of hope’ that Robert Kennedy spoke about in June 1966. 

I am already knowing myself a little better and understanding the things that have influenced me and the choices I have now about how I respond to things and people. I am becoming less judgmental, including about myself, and kinder to others and importantly to myself. If the course was a marathon, I feel like I passed the first big milestone. The first three miles or so are done but there is still a long way to go and although my legs feel fresh now, I know there are some hard yards ahead.   

With muscles, they say more you work them, the more you get out of them. The more I have been working my mind, the more it seems to be responding and the more I am learning and understanding. But I guess like all exercise, there are times when the muscles are strained and soreness sets in. I have felt some of this pain over the last few months – some of it deep and raw – but I have received so much more gain as a result. 

Dr J is probably suffering the most; hearing, as she does, my daily penny drop moments as something in my story suddenly makes more sense to me than it had ever done before. It is worth some pain for this gain (I hope for both of us!), but as I have been learning, it is also important to hear the pain, to listen to the cries and the sadness and to accept and not fight it or ignore it.

I plan to continue to enjoy this break from the classroom but to keep an open mind about what I can learn every day about myself. After all, every day is a school day.